Born in Starkville, Mississippi, Bell joined the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as a pitcher in 1922. By 1924, he had become their starting centerfielder, and was known as an adept batter and fielder, and the "fastest man in the league". After leading the Stars to league titles in 1929, 1930, and 1931, he moved to the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League when the Negro National League disbanded. Detroit soon folded, itself, leaving Bell to bounce to the Kansas City Monarchs and the Mexican winter leagues until finding a home with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the reorganized NNL. He eventually left the Crawfords in 1938 for Mexico again, returning to baseball in the United States in 1942 to play for the Homestead Grays, who won Negro League titles in 1942, 1943, and 1944 with his help. He last played for the semi-pro Detroit Senators in 1946. Later in life he would manage the Kansas City Stars, teaching the ins and outs of the game to future major-league baseball greats Ernie Banks and Elston Howard, among others.
Because of the opposition the Negro leagues faced, and because of the lack of reliable press coverage of many of their games, no statistics can be given for Bell with any accuracy. What is undeniable is that Bell was considered to be one of the greats of his time by all the men he played with (including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson). He is recorded as having rounded the bases in 13.3 seconds, and claimed he could make it in 12 under good conditions. As Paige himself noted in his autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, "If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking."
"Cool Papa" Bell died in his home on Dickson Street in St. Louis, Missouri in 1991. In his honor, the city renamed Dickson Street as "James 'Cool Papa' Bell Avenue".